Billy Vunipola steers the champions home as Saracens survive a storm | Robert Kitson
11 May 2019 18:46
Just occasionally two teams can be so evenly matched it is almost impossible to separate them. This was one of them, a contest so tight it practically required a chisel to prise the prize-fighters apart. Until, that is, someone stands up and decides to take matters into his own, huge hands. Billy Vunipola is not everyone’s favourite athlete right now but no one can deny his relish for the big occasion.
If the boos that greeted him at various points on a cool north-east afternoon were intended to throw the England No 8 off his game, they did not succeed. The saga of his social media intervention into the religious hornet’s nest stirred up by Israel Folau would have unnerved most human beings but, perversely, it works differently with Billy. Just as in the semi-final against Munster he stepped up when Saracens needed him most, stretching over for the defining try of a game that defines the north Londoners as perhaps the toughest European Cup hombres of all time. The only remaining question-mark surrounds Vunipola’s left forearm which forced him off late in the game; even rugby’s supermen have their breaking point.
Do not be misled, either, by the final scoreline. Until the 67th minute, when Vunipola intervened, it was by no means certain Saracens would prevail and collect a third European title in the past four years. The opposite had looked probable for much of the first half, particularly when Saracens’ day appeared to have been ruined by a triple whammy of misfortune.
Even those who had been drinking lager since breakfast time – a new all-comers record may well have been set in Newcastle this weekend – could hardly fail to detect the point when the challengers’ afternoon looked all but certain to end in disappointment.
It came in the 29th minute of a hitherto cagey contest, with Saracens under pressure on their own line. The referee, Jérôme Garcès, had peeled away to check whether the ball had been grounded over the Saracens line but by the time the deliberations had been completed the Londoners’ problems had multiplied.
Losing one starting prop before the half-hour mark is unfortunate; to lose two threatens the entire foundations of any side.
The combined weight of the hobbling duo of Mako Vunipola and Titi Lamositele is 251 kg and, while Richard Barrington and Vincent Koch are both tough customers, this was a heavy blow in every sense.
To add insult to injury, Maro Itoje was yellow-carded for offside leaving his depleted team to try to defend a scrum on their own line. Leinster do not waste such giftsand Tadhg Furlong’s subsequent score was as inevitable as it was clinical.
Few teams come from behind to break Leinster’s hearts, particularly not on this kind of occasion. Which made what followed all the more extraordinary, not least in a second half even more brutal and unflinching than the first. If Billy Vunipola stood out, Barrington and Koch will also now go down in club legend. A capacity crowd of 51,930 did not so much lap it up as look on in total awe at the levels of physical commitment. Occasionally rugby can feel a little trivial, a good-humoured cousin to football that knows its place. No longer on this evidence. St James’ Park has already tasted a bit of Rugby World Cup action and here was further proof, for those open-minded enough to give it a try, that the oval ball game can stand on its own two feet anywhere without artificial gimmicks or cheap ticket giveways.
The other major winner was the city of Newcastle itself. Watching tiny kids throwing rugby balls around on the Quayside and contented fans enjoying their (mostly) liquid lunches it felt as if the Toon and rugby were meant for each other.
England will also be playing Italy here in September before they head off to the Rugby World Cup, offering the prospect of another big Friday night for the local hoteliers and hostelries. What a shame it is that the Falcons picked this particular moment to get relegated from the Premiership but they will be back soon enough. To judge from the broad smiles on the faces of the visiting hordes this weekend, so will many others.